By Alejandro Chaoul, Ph.D., and Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D.
The belief that what we think and feel can influence our health and healing dates back thousands of years. The importance of the role of the mind, emotions and behaviors in health and well-being was part of many ancient cultures, from the Greeks to the Chinese.
When people are in a state of stress, we enter what some Tibetan teachings call the "monkey-mind" mode; our minds go from thought to thought and emotion to emotion, like a monkey travels from branch to branch. The monkey-mind pervasive even when people are not experiencing stress.
When experiencing stressful life events -- situations that pose challenge, harm, loss, or lack of control -- the monkey-mind is our default and our fight-or-flight instinct takes over, and increases stress levels even further.
The fight-or-flight response is useful in managing acute stressors, but when the stressors become chronic the response becomes destructive to our health and overall functioning.
Chronic stress literally has a negative effect on every physiological system in the body. It has been well documented that stress influences all cells in our body -- changing gene expression and the tumor microenvironment to create a more hospitable terrain for tumor growth.
Many people are turning to ancient mind-body practices, like meditation, to reduce stress. Meditation is defined as "a wakeful hypo-metabolic-physiologic state" in which the practitioner is extremely relaxed, yet alert and focused.
Although meditation methods can vary, most types of meditation share common features. These include the focused, controlled regulation of breathing and control over thoughts and feelings that come to mind, whether the goal is to inhibit and/or acknowledge and release external thoughts and feelings.
A common metaphor for meditation is that it helps to remove the clouds in the sky, so that we can see the light and radiance of the sun, which in turn brings warmth to ourselves and others. Meditation is the familiarization or cultivation of this state of mind so that we can bring it into our everyday life.
Calming your mind and harmonizing your life is not just an ancient myth or a tool reserved for those in monasteries or caves, it is here for society as a whole.
Research and clinical trials
Research is finding that mind-body practices have a positive effect on all systems in our body (e.g., cardiovascular, digestive, immune, hormone, neurotransmitters and even gene expression), improving aspects of quality of life and creating fundamental beneficial changes in the way the brain works. These techniques may help reverse the harmful effects of stress.
MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program is conducting a number of mind-body clinical trials including research on:
- Tibetan meditation to treat cognitive dysfunction,
- Indian-based yoga and Chinese Qi Gong and T'ai Chi to help manage side effects of radiation therapy,
- Tibetan yoga for patients undergoing chemotherapy and
- other forms of relaxation to manage stress associated with breast biopsies and cancer treatments.